Democrats consider distance from Jefferson, Jackson

AP News
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Posted: Jul 30, 2015 4:41 PM

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Democratic parties in the three states that start the presidential nominating process are exploring ending their association with two former White House occupants: Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Accelerating a trend that goes back years, committees in several states recently have distanced themselves from the slave-owning former presidents by dropping their names from the titles of their annual fundraising dinners. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — which typically attract big crowds and presidential hopefuls to their events — could be next.

Georgia, Connecticut, and Missouri Democrats recently announced their decision to abandon the Jefferson-Jackson name, though only the Missouri party has decided on long-term replacement. In South Carolina, where the June massacre of nine black churchgoers spurred state leaders to remove the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds, the state Democratic Party plans at its September meeting to discuss the possibility of renaming the dinner. State parties in Iowa, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Jackson's home state of Tennessee also are considering changes.

In New Hampshire, state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley raised the idea of renaming the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner with party officials last month, and a committee will meet this fall to discuss the idea and make recommendations, a spokeswoman said. Buckley, who also serves as president of the national Association of State Democratic Chairs, on Thursday declined to discuss either his reasons for bringing up the issue in New Hampshire or the broader national trend. Gov. Maggie Hassan hasn't taken a position, but her spokesman said she believes "this is an important conversation to have."

A spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party confirmed that Democrats there are considering a change but likewise declined to elaborate, though party leaders elsewhere have been more forthcoming. Nick Balletto, chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said the South Carolina shooting made him think about how the party has changed and how "history has not been kind" to Jefferson and Jackson.

"If we want to be the party of the people, we need to reflect what our community is, and we should step up and make a change," he said.

Connecticut Democrats voted earlier this month to keep the name of a former state and national party chairman, John M. Bailey, attached to their dinner. Members have until the end of August to come up with another name. In Missouri, party officials who renamed their dinner after President Harry Truman said their goal was to honor him rather than jettison Jefferson and Jackson for owning slaves.

In the South, the changes come amid a larger discussion over the ubiquitous links to the nation's slave-holding era and the Confederacy in the form of public statues and the names of counties, schools and streets. Yet Democrats in the region don't necessarily agree on how far to go in scrubbing the names.

"If people feel strongly about it, then we should change it," said Don Fowler, a white South Carolinian who served as national party chairman during Bill Clinton's presidency. Still, Fowler said, "There are limits to these things. ... George Washington was a slave owner, and I doubt that we are going to change the name of our nation's capital."

Yet in neighboring Georgia, state Sen. Vincent Fort wants Democrats to test those limits, saying the name change of a fundraising dinner is merely a "long overdue" first step in reshaping how the party presents American history.

"Jefferson and Jackson ought to be discussed in the classroom, in museums," said Fort, who is black and represents a majority black district in Atlanta. "But they should not have their slave-owning, Indian-killing monikers on an event that is sponsored by the Democratic Party of Georgia."

South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison, who is black, said he agreed to put the Jefferson-Jackson name on the agenda at the next party meeting because members requested it and "having a discussion about what kind of party we want to be worthwhile."

Harrison cautioned, though, "Symbols are important, but you have to find the right balance. ... On a personal note, I'd rather see us spend our energy and effort trying to get Medicaid expanded, fixing the schools, the roads."

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Barrow reported from Atlanta.